Lies & Disasters

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Plato, or so it is claimed, advanced the idea of the noble lie: an untruth knowingly propagated for the good of society. In Plato’s Republic the noble lie was a myth presented as the parable of the metals and was intended to help maintain the ideal social order of that state.  Given Plato’s opposition to the sophists and his praise of virtue, the noble lie can be jarring to some readers of his work. Detractors of philosophy will, naturally enough, regard most philosophers as engaged in less-than-noble lies. But, of course, philosophy is supposed to be a search for wisdom and this presumably includes a devotion to the truth. Politicians, who are supposed to be far more pragmatic than philosophers, would seem more inclined to embrace the noble lie. Or the ignoble lie. This does raise the enduring question of whether it is morally acceptable for leaders to lie for what they think is the good of society.

The easy and obvious way to argue this issue is to approach it on utilitarian grounds. On this moral view, if telling a lie would create more good than harm for those who matter morally, then lying would be morally correct. If the lie would create more harm than good, it would be wrong. There is, as always, an important distinction between what those lying think will result and the actual outcome—as such, there is also a distinction between the ethics of intention and the ethics of the actual consequences. History shows that good intentions do not always lead to good consequences.

There are also moral views, such as the rule-based deontological ethics put forth by Immanuel Kant. For Kant, morality is not a matter of consequences but a matter of following the rules. As Kant saw it, his categorical imperative entailed that lying was always wrong—so Kant and his fellows would be opposed to such a lie.

There is also the notion that truth and falsity do not matter. While some might think that this notion is something that emerged on the public stage in 2016, it has a much older pedigree. The sophists of ancient Greece embraced this view and contended that what mattered was success. Jumping ahead centuries, the idea was also advanced during the administration of Woodrow Wilson. When Wilson led the United States into World War I, he insisted that “the spirit of ruthless brutality…enter into the very fibre of national life.” As part of this approach, he created the Committee on Public Information. He was apparently inspired by an advisor who wrote that “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms….The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.”

On the one hand, this approach to the truth can be regarded as hard-headed pragmatism of the sort often praised by practical folks: what matters is the effectiveness of an idea in achieving the desired goal. To use a contemporary illustration, the successful “First Social Media War” waged by the Russians against the United States in 2016 illustrated that false claims served far better than true claims in achieving their goals. Trump and his people also effectively employed this approach, even minting the term “alternative facts.” This approach can be morally justified by using a utilitarian argument of the sort presented above, with an explicit rejection of any preference for truth. It can also be justified on the grounds of ethical egoism—the moral theory that what maximizes value for the individual in question is good. For example, from Trump’s perspective what best serves his interest is what is good.

On the other hand, while lies can yield short term good or advance someone’s private advantage, they seem to prove damaging over the longer term and broader scale. Take, as an illustration, the consequences of the decisions to lie about the flu pandemic of 1918. Public officials elected to tell the public that the flu was not serious and elected to protect the lie by not taking sensible medical approaches to the flu. For example, deciding to not cancel the Liberty Loan parade helped contribute to the epidemic in Philadelphia. The easy and obvious reason that such lies tend to have bad results is that operating in a way that does not match reality tends to lead to bad decision making and this tends to lead to negative consequences.

A good contemporary example of this is the matter of climate change. While most experts believe that climate change is occurring and has been influenced by human action, there are still political figures who deny this. While it is possible that the political figures are operating in sincere ignorance rather that lying, this is a case in which it is all but certain that one side is lying. If the climate change deniers are lying, they are acting like the lying officials did in 1918 and will be complicit in worldwide suffering and countless deaths. If the climate change believers are lying, the consequences will be far less bad—more regulations, deployment of more green energy technology, and perhaps some negative impact on economic growth. Being rational, I side with the majority of qualified experts—I am confident that the climate scientists are not lying. However, I am open to compelling arguments and evidence from climate experts who deny climate change.

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